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Endgame in Libya

March 22, 2011

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In 1986, when American jets attacked Tripoli and killed Qadhafi's 9-year old adopted daughter, I fired off an angry column. Many others shared my feelings. In those days, the Libyan leader was widely seen as a champion of anti-imperialism, and the supporter of many liberation struggles. Also, there was no proof linking him to the bombing of a nightclub in Berlin that killed several Americans and triggered the US response.

Much has changed in the quarter century since that incident. Qadhafi's behaviour has become more and more erratic, and his abuse of power has now reached epic proportions, even by Arab standards of misrule. Above all, the use of aircraft, artillery and tanks against his own people should dispel any doubts about the Western action to neuter the forces he had deployed against the rebels.Qadhafi and his sons have continued to display their usual swaggering arrogance in the face of universal condemnation. Vowing to wipe out “collaborators”, the ruling family seem totally out of touch with reality. Blaming his woes on Al Qaeda and foreign elements, the Libyan dictator cannot believe that finally, his own people have turned against him. In rambling, incoherent speeches and interviews, he continues to insist that all Libyans love him.

Considering how he has frittered away so much of his country's vast oil wealth, there seems no reason for Libyans to harbour any sympathy for their beleaguered leader. Fully a third of the population lives below the poverty line. For years, human rights groups have been documenting the torture political prisoners undergo as a matter of routine.

The dictator's sons have been fulminating against foreign interference in Libya's internal affairs. Somehow, they are convinced that they have a God-given right to power, and that their father has a dynasty in place. As indeed he had until the democratic spring sweeping across the Arab world made its appearance in Benghazi.

But 42 years in power is a long time, even by Arab standards. Lacking legitimacy, Qadhafi's antics have isolated him completely: even the Arab League was finally forced to come out openly against one of their own. The moribund organisation is now hedging its support for the no-fly zone now in place over Libya. In all probability, the Arab League's more conservative members thought that by throwing Qadhafi to the wolves, they could move the spotlight away from their own repression of their rebellious youth.

However, it would seem that finally, retribution is catching up with them. Yemen is on the brink, with many government supporters deserting, much like rats jumping off a sinking ship. Bahrain continues to face violent unrest, despite Saudi Arabia's crude intervention. Syria and Morocco are being shaken by demonstrations. Egypt and Tunisia seem to be moving towards achieving functioning democracies.

Even Saudi Arabia has experienced disturbances among its Shia population in the oil-producing districts. A reader asked me why the United States does not intervene to help protesters in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Like all other rational states, Washington acts in its perceived national interest, and propping up the monarchies of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is to its advantage.

The truth is that there will always be contradictions between a state's ideals and its interests. Even though the United States stands for democracy, it has long dealt with dictators when its interests are best served by them. We in Pakistan know this only too well. Nevertheless, we should applaud any support democratic forces receive from the world's sole superpower.

One factor that drove Western powers to intervene so powerfully and effectively in Libya is the spectre of floods of refugees fleeing to Europe to escape a vengeful Qadhafi. Before the UN authorised action, the Libyan dictator was poised to smash the rebel forces around Benghazi. Having promised them no mercy, he could well have unleashed a bloodbath. This would have sent thousands of Libyan refugees across the Mediterranean to nearby Italy and beyond.

The most troubling aspect of the intervention is the thought of Qadhafi remaining in power in and around Tripoli, surrounded by his supporters as well as elements of the army and security services. The truth is that he does retain a measure of fanatical support, based on patronage and tribal connections. What if the civil war ends in stalemate and a divided Libya?

I suspect that the coalition will not stand for this kind of unresolved situation for very long. Even though western powers are reluctant to send in troops to effect regime-change, it is not difficult to visualise a scenario where the rebels, closely supported by coalition air power, re-take the initiative and advance to Tripoli. The timid Arab states might send token troops to help.

Here it gets messy. If there are significant casualties among the pro-Qadhafi forces and prolonged urban warfare, the Muslim world may well recoil. America, already uncomfortable with its third simultaneous conflict in Muslim countries, could face yet another backlash. Pentagon spokesmen have quickly clarified that American forces will not be in the lead to enforce the no-fly zone. Having neutralised the country's air defences within hours of the action, American commanders are likely to take a back seat.

However, while it is easy to start a war, the endgame can be a long drawn-out affair, as the Americans learned in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. While the UN resolution stipulates that no ground troops are to be used, what happens if American pilots crash-land and are captured by Qadhafi's forces? It is easy to get sucked in ever deeper into a conflict than its planners ever expected. In warfare, the law of unintended consequences kicks in with a vengeance.

How the Libyan adventure will play out in America remains to be seen. Already, some senators have expressed their concern that Obama has exceeded his powers by starting a war without congressional approval. The US electorate, weary of foreign entanglements, will not put up with yet another protracted conflict. It is hard to make the case that Libya represents any threat to America.

As all these currents play out, we should not lose sight of the courage young Libyans have shown in standing up to a vicious dictator. They represent a promise for a better future for the Arab world.